I’ve been writing about Mormonism for five years, covering nearly every topic, from LGBT rights to Mormon feminism. But I’ve never written about my experiences with church history.
Confession: My experience with church history is extremely limited. Oh, I know the basics of what I’ll find if I really dig: the truth about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and the racism of Brigham Young that later justified generations of discrimination. Massacres and peep-stones, white salamanders and Egyptian funerary papyrus. I have a SparkNotes understanding of Mormon history, but I keep stopping myself from going further.
Because you can’t change history. I can’t go back in time and erase the diary entries of a reluctant polygamist woman. I can’t change the outcome of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. So, I dance around my history, knowing that, someday, I’ll have to face my heritage the way I faced my more contemporary Mormon demons.
While I gather the courage to trudge into official church history, I’m taking comfort in another history. You won’t find it online, or at Deseret Book. You’ll find my Mormon history in recipe cards and leopard-print clothing. My Mormon history smells like hair dye and shampoo, and I’m hoping it’s enough to carry me through my study of church history and into my future as an inactive, liberal Mormon feminist, a resident alien living in Mormon country.
Every Sunday when I was growing up, my grandmother would make my family an elaborate Sunday dinner. My father joked that Sunday dinner was his reward for raising a family in Utah after his two sisters moved their families out of state. My grandmother was a wonderful cook, planning intricate meals that usually took all day to prepare. She would wake up early Sunday morning to prepare, making sure she had enough time to cook dinner and attend all three hours of church. My grandma was, and still is, a faithful Mormon. She spent 15 years volunteering at the Church Office Building. Her casseroles have fed hundreds of hungry mourners at funerals. She cries when the prophet comes on the screen during General Conference.
But sometimes we would come for dinner only to be greeted by a counter full of Domino’s pizzas. During weeks when my grandma was too tired or too busy to cook, she’d order a bunch of pizzas and run to Albertsons for bagged salads and ice cream sandwiches. Sometimes my dad would gently criticize her, saying, “Mom! It’s Sunday!” My sweet grandma would say nothing, just shoot him a glare that could freeze blood.
I remember during the 2012 election, when a photo of a young Mitt and future Ann Romney floated around the Internet and newspapers. In the photo, Ann wears a sleeveless dress. Later in the campaign, many a conservative Mormon blogger would criticize Ann for her short skirts and sheer blouses. Grandma was shocked by the commentary, confessing in hushed tones, “I don’t know when sleeves became such a big deal. I let my girls wear bikinis! What’s wrong with looking a little sexy?” At the time, she was wearing a leopard-print skirt and knee-high boots.
A few months ago, someone very near to my grandmother announced that she was gay. She was also deeply hurting from the reaction of some family members and friends. It was a problem my grandma couldn’t solve with a home-cooked meal or excellent fashion advice. So instead, my grandma decided she wanted to “walk with the Mormons in the Pride Parade,” adding, “I want the whole family to come.” So, in July, we walked in the parade, taking turns holding my 83-year-old grandma’s arm as she walked the entire parade route, blowing kisses and hugging men in drag. She wanted to show support for a friend who was hurting, and a Relief Society message with a plate of cookies wasn’t going to cut it.
I’m lucky to have grown up with both my grandmothers. My other grandma, a lifelong Republican who identifies herself only by my grandpa’s full name (e.g., Mrs. John Doe) has a history of Mormon rebellion, as well. My mom remembers realizing that her mother was the only woman in the ward who worked “outside” the home. Grandma worked from home in a beauty parlor she’d carved out of her basement, setting permanents in a dryer chair next to her washing machine. My mom recalls her mother being quietly frustrated every time a church leader would encourage women to leave their jobs. She retired only when her arthritis made haircuts too painful to perform.
Once, frustrated with my grandpa’s inability to understand my feminist leanings, my grandma silenced him with a “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a white male!” My grandma wouldn’t let my mom wear pants to school until she was 15. But she knew male privilege when she saw it.
What happened to the Mormonism that raised my grandmas? They were brave and courageous and knew when to call bullshit on traditions that didn’t help them better raise their families. As much as I’m afraid to discover the history of my church, I’m realizing I’m more terrified to lose the history of my grandmothers.
It’s this history, a history of love and acceptance over dogma and orthodoxy, that will shape my future with Mormonism. It gives me hope that other women with grandmas like mine will help turn the tide of Mormonism to a brighter and better future. I can’t change the history of the church, but my own Mormon history has taught me I can change the future.
Stephanie Lauritzen blogs at MormonChildBride.blogspot.com